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Boat Ownership Rules UK

UK boat ownership means following all sailing safety regulations. This guide is for boat owners to check whether they need insurance to register the vessel.

Owning a boat: Do you use a boat on an inland waterway or tributary, such as on lakes, canals, and rivers?

If so, the boat you own may need licencing and registering with the proper authorities. As a boat owner, you may also need to comply with certain other safety requirements as well.

It will depend on whether you use it to sail inland, at sea, and ‘privately’ or for commercial purposes.

Inland Waterways Safety Laws

There are certain regulations you need to follow. You may need to buy a licence if you plan to use your boat on inland waterways such as canals and rivers. The Boat Safety Scheme (BSS) certificate is often required. You may need it before you can register or buy a licence for use on inland waterways.

Obtaining the Boat Safety Scheme (BSS) certificate is not always necessary. It is not required if your boat is a ‘privately’ owned ‘open boat’ and without a motor. Some examples of open boats with no motor would be rowing boats, canoes, and paddleboards.

Some privately owned ‘open boats’ have outboard motors but no electrical systems. These may also be exempt from boat certification regulations.

Contact the navigation authority responsible for managing your chosen waterway. That is the best way to check their particular waterway requirements.

Note: Boats which do require a BSS certificate need to get tested every four (4) years. The boat owner has the responsibility of maintaining it to all BSS standards between each test certificate.

Boat Owner Waterway Rules of the Road

  • Boaters must drive on the right and pass other boats port to port on all waterways.
  • On rivers, the boat coming downstream has right of way.
  • Under bridges, the boat closest to the bridge has right of way. Keep right until the boat has passed.
  • The maximum speed on narrow canals is four (4) miles per hour (mph).

Note: More reading is available in ‘The boater’s handbook: basic boat-handling and safety‘. It covers the basics and essential boating techniques needed to stay safe on the water.

BSS Certificate for New Boat Ownership

If you buy a new boat it should already meet the necessary standards and there should be no need to have it checked. Even so, before you register it, you might get asked to provide a valid certificate. It is proof that a new boat meets the requirements.

Note: Remember to get your BSS certificate four years later. It will need renewing every four years afterwards (excluding exemptions).

BSS Non-Certification Penalty

Some boats are exempt from requiring a certificate. But, you are likely to get penalised for not having one if you should. The navigation authority managing the waterway you use will determine the extent of penalties for non-compliance.

Owning a Commercial Boat

  1. If it carries less than 12 passengers: Check Boat Safety Scheme guidance to see if you need a certificate.
  2. If it carries more than 12 passengers: The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) need to issue you with a Passenger Certificate.
  3. Check to see whether you need any statutory certificates to meet any other safety requirements for boats to operate on inland waters.

Boat Safety at Sea (UK)

Follow all international safety regulations while using any boat at sea.

  • You must plan your voyage and carry a radar reflector.
  • Carry an illustrated table of the recognised life-saving signals.
  • Help other craft (if needed) and use distress signals properly.

Note: You can get prosecuted if you are involved in a boating accident and did not follow the regulations. Check the boat safety at sea in the United Kingdom and its related shipping laws. Further reading is also in the Maritime and Coastguard Agency ‘Life saving signals’ leaflet.

Preventing Boat Collisions

Read the ‘MSN 1781 Corrigendum‘ Merchant Shipping (Distress Signals and Prevention of Collisions) Regulations 1996. It has detailed information to help prevent boat collisions. But, in simple terms you must:

  • Fit navigation lights, shapes and sound-signalling devices on your boat.
  • Be alert to other boats and watercraft around you at all times.
  • Stay a safe distance away from other boats, and all scuba diving boats flying the blue-and-white ‘Alpha’ flag.
  • Check ‘www.private-scuba.com/diving/equipment/accessories/flags-and-floats.html

Safety Equipment for Boat Owners

Boat ownership of a vessel longer than 13.7 meters (45 feet) has extra rules and regulation. These boats must get equipped with life jackets, flares, life rafts, and fire extinguishers.

Specific regulations also apply to ‘MGN 538 Pleasure vessels‘ and what you would need to carry on board. In fact, it depends and how far away from the coastline you will be travelling and the size of your boat.

Preventing Water Pollution

Boat owners must not discard oil or rubbish into the sea water. There should be a notice displayed on board. It must explain how to dispose of rubbish and trash ‘appropriately’ if your boat is more than 12 meters long (40 feet).

Note: Further information is available about the technical requirements for ships to safely get rid of waste, and ‘MSN 1807 Prevention of pollution‘ according to MARPOL 73/78.

Disposing Old or Damaged Flares

Out-of-date or damaged flares can be very hazardous. Boat owners must follow the specific rules for getting rid of them. It is against the law to put old flares inside public litter bins or in household rubbish.

Note: Never discard old or damaged boat flares with garden waste.

You must not dump flares at sea or store them where a member of the public could find them. It’s also an offence to set them off outside of emergency situations. Contact any of the following places if you need to get rid of out-of-date or damaged flares:

  • The place where you purchased them (they usually offer a ‘take back’ policy).
  • Some marinas, life raft service stations, or council recycling centers (there may be a charge).
  • A Coastguard Operations Centre (CGOC). You may need to book an advance appointment.

If the vessel you own is a small commercial boat you may also need to get the boat surveyed and meet certain operational standards for small vessels.

Boat Owner Insurance

As a rule, owning a boat in the United Kingdom means you need to insure it. The standard of insurance you may need will depend on where you use your boat and for what purpose.

Boat Insurance for Inland Waterways

  1. Powered Boat or Houseboat: You are likely to need ‘third party’ boat insurance for at least £1 million.
  2. Unpowered Boat: You may need boat insurance (check with the waterway navigation authority where you want to use it).

Insurance for Boats at Sea

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency has further guidance for small commercial boat owners. You are likely to need statutory certificates for your vessel.

Note: Boat ownership without adequate insurance has risks of prosecution or fines. The enforcement of penalties and severity depends on navigation authorities. The Canal and River Trust website lists insurance companies who provide boat insurance.

Rules for Owning a Boat in the United Kingdom